Age verification trial tests to be outsourced

Brandon How

A trial of age verification technologies will be managed by the Department of Communications, but technical effectiveness tests will be done by a third-party expert selected through a competitive process.

During Senate Estimates on Thursday, Communications officials confirmed that effectiveness assessments for the $6.5 million trial of age assurance technology would be undertaken by an external provider.

A technical expert would be engaged to assess the “system design and technical specifications” of age assurance technologies.

Digital platform companies are not required to participate in the trial, but the department believes it is in the interest of the Big Tech companies to do so as they are subject to the Online Safety Act, which is currently under review.

However, the tech companies are not expected to perform tests of the age assurance technology directly on their social media platforms as a part of the trial.

Later in the day, eSafety Commissioner Julie Inman-Grant confirmed that her office was supporting the trial as a part of a cross-government working group, which also includes the Attorney-General’s department and Home Affairs.

The estimates hearing was told the external technical provider would test the effectiveness of age assurance technologies using its own methodology. The effectiveness criteria includes whether the technology can accurately identify a user’s age, as well as privacy and security protections.

Communications assistant secretary Bridget Gannon, who is responsible for the trial, said the department would be “consulting closely with experts, researchers, and with industry to ensure that the technology that is tested as part of the trial is effective”.

Following the announcement of the trial earlier this month, digital rights, tech and criminology experts told that they had serious doubts on the workability of the technology, privacy trade-offs, and the motivations for engaging in the trial.

Ms Inman-Grant delivered an age verification roadmap to the federal government in March last year which recommended a trial of technologies, but was initially rejected in August 2023.

The roadmap noted that current market offerings of age assurance technologies were “immature” after reviewing options like digital identity apps that allow individuals to store personal information on their device, electronic token like those used in euCONSENT trials in Europe, and facial recognition.

A list of the technologies that will be considered in the trial has yet to be determined, but officials flagged that the guidance from the United Kingdom government has already found that self-declaration of age is ineffective.

The primary function of the trial would be to “provide advice to government” on the effectiveness of existing age assurance technologies, according to Ms Gannon, which would guide the work being led by the eSafety Commissioner.

“The department will be undertaking a trial to examine technologies that are currently available to test their effectiveness,” Ms Gannon said. She later confirmed that digital platform companies “won’t be undertaking the trial, we will be”.

Ms Inman-Grant flagged that a technology trial undertaken by the French government with a “major global porn site” had resulted in a migration of users to “rogue porn sites” and mainstream social media sites like X and Reddit, which have “porn all over it”.

Ms Gannon said that trials of age assurance technology on social media platforms would be required through the development of the phase two industry codes and standards through the Office of the eSafety Commissioner.

Phase Two of the eSafety Commissioner’s industry codes and standards will cover actions against online pornography that is inappropriate for children, but has not formally commenced.

While the six industry-led codes have already come into effect, the completion of phase one – focusing on child sexual abuse and pro-terror content – is waiting on the implementation of two mandatory industry standards, which have yet to be finalised.

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